A Brief History
On February 1, 2003, the United States suffered the second loss of a space shuttle, this time the Columbia.
Digging deeper, we find Columbia at the completion of its 28th mission and ready to start reentry into Earth’s atmosphere at about 8:10 am for an estimated 9:16 am landing in Florida.
Speeding around the Earth at over 20 times the speed of sound, Columbia was doomed, and the crew did not know it. On take off, a piece of foam insulation had broken off of a large external fuel tank and had struck the left wing, causing damage to the outer skin.
As the shuttle entered the atmosphere at about 400,000 feet of altitude, the tremendous speed compressed the atmospheric gasses, creating extreme heat, a normal situation. Unfortunately, this time the hot gasses were able to penetrate the internal structure of the wing and began to destroy its structural integrity.
As it passed over the West Coast, people on the ground in California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico began seeing bright flashes coming from Columbia. By the time the doomed space craft was over Texas, what had been a slow disintegration suddenly became fast.
As the shuttle began to break up, the passenger compartment lost pressurization, and the craft went wildly out of control. The crew had little time to react, and their safety harnesses failed to keep them in place.
As the ship disintegrated, thousands of pieces of debris, including body parts of the crew of 7, fell over Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. Government authorities advised the public not to touch any of the debris and to report their location. That did not stop enterprising people from gathering pieces and trying to sell them on E-Bay! The government put a quick stop to that.
The post-accident investigation found that NASA officials were aware that foam had also broken off of and had struck previous shuttles but thought that was an acceptable risk. They had also been aware of the foam hitting the wing this time, but apparently thought there was nothing they could do about it and did not notify the crew or take any actions to mount a rescue flight.
It was initially reported that no rescue flight was possible, but investigators found that there was indeed a chance one could have been mounted in time to rescue the crew or fix the damage. The investigators were critical of the NASA bureaucracy’s decision making, which resulted in some reorganization at NASA. As with the Challenger disaster, the Columbia tragedy resulted in a 2-year hiatus of shuttle flights.
Future flights had much of the dangerous foam removed from the fuel tanks, and further crew survivability measures were implemented. No further shuttle disasters occurred, and the remaining shuttle fleet was retired in 2011.
A bizarre aspect of this disaster is that worms in a petri dish taken into space as part of an experiment were found to have survived the crash!
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you remember seeing the Columbia disaster on television when it occurred in 2003 or did that tragic event occur before you were born? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Cabbage, Michael and William Harwood. Comm Check…: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia. Free Press, 2009.
The featured image in this article, the glow of reentry as seen out the front windows, is in the public domain in the United States because it was solely created by NASA. NASA copyright policy states that “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted“.
You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube: